Adrenalin-packed, high-risk action tours are soaring in popularity, as people book to get out of their comfort zone and add some zing to their lives. Intrepid
Thrill seeker Greg Bearup gives it his best shot.
As the helicopter rises through the massive valleys, the blindingly obvious dawns on me: these hills are substantially bigger than the ones I’ve previously conquered on my daily bicycle commute to the office. I am in New Zealand’s South Island to go mountain biking for an article about hard-core travel, but up until this point, for some odd reason, fitness has been my main concern, not fear. It’s the end of summer, yet there is snow on the surrounding mountains. Then someone points out Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. There’s a crackle in our headphones. “This valley was one of the ones used in Lord of the Rings,” the pilot relays as a herd of wild goats leap about on a track below. I must be completely mad, I think. What am I doing? This is to be my first ever ride on a mountain bike, and a proper mountain. The day did not begin well. I woke up at a hotel in Queenstown to discover I hadn’t packed my sneakers and had only a pair of brown Doc Marten shoes. I looked like Angus Young on a cycling tour: Acca/Peddler. Also, my new Camelbak, a small backpack with a built-in water bladder, was spitting water all over me. “What’s the go with this?” I asked later as my fellow riders assembled at the heliport. “It’s missing the nozzle that keeps the water in,” one of them said, deadpan. I was directed to cycle over to a nearby shop to buy a new nozzle. Then, midway through a briefing, I had to cycle back to recover the gloves I’d left on the shop counter.
My four fellow riders – two engineers, an electrician and a mechanic – are
a group of mates from Whakatane on the North Island, here to celebrate the
first of them reaching 40. It’s their “mancation”, their “bromance” away
from girlfriends, wives and kids. I was only able to squeeze in because another
friend dropped out. Our guide is Greg McIntyre, the owner of the Fat Tyre adventure company – a bald and stocky ex-farmer and ex-chef who has been taking bike tours for the past decade. He’s the type of bloke who
could rebuild a tractor motor with a pair of pliers then cook a meal on the
radiator. The other riders belong to the Whakatane Mountain Bike Club,
which has some 400 members. “Yeah, but there are really only 10 or so of us
who are hard-core,” one told McIntyre. “So, you guys race mountain bikes?” I asked warily.“A wee bit, eh,” one informed me. “A wee bit.” “F…,” I thought. “F….”
(A couple of days later I learnt they were all wondering if they could demand
a full refund in the likely event that I would ruin their holiday.)
Then it was time to get into the helicopter. “Any advice you can give me?”
I asked Andy, the birthday boy. “Speed is your friend,” he replied, grinning.
So here we are, in the helicopter, heading towards fate. With Mount Cecil behind us, we fly over and past equally stolid-sounding yet spectacular peaks, rivers, towns and ranges – Clyde, Cromwell, Muttontown – to reach Mount Dunstan at the top of the Dunstan Ranges. It’s here that the helicopter lands on a wind-smoothed peak with the odd craggy outcrop.
Nothing grows here, apart from ancient-looking moss and lichens, and the
mountain drops away steeply to a valley, way, way below.
We unload the bikes and wave goodbye to the chopper. There is a brief
moment of calm as we survey the view, clear for hundreds of kilometres.
McIntyre gives us our final riding instructions. “The only real rule is self-preservation,” he says, and with that, we blast off down the mountain with
Andy yelping with glee and me in my Docs. “Keep your arse way back, your elbows bent and don’t look down,” McIntyre calls to me as I bounce along in front of him. “Look to where you want to go. Just don’t look
down. Look through to where you are going, not down.” I’m completely unaware of the scenery and concentrate only on the sheep track in front
of me. I am trying to look, as instructed, 15 or 20 metres ahead, rather than at the rocks that are about to hit the wheel. I am fine for about 20 minutes before it starts to get steeper and steeper. At one point I have both disc brakes on and the
bike is still sliding down the mountain. Then, coming down one particularly steep slope, I get caught in the deep rut of a sheep track. I make the fatal mistake and look down, not ahead, and squeeze too hard on the brakes. The bike is like an old stockhorse with a new jackaroo: it can smell fear. It bucks me out of the saddle and over the handlebars and I land hard on my shoulder and
ribs. Thud! Then I slide a few metres down the side of the mountain, like a body in a spud bag “Are you okay?” asks McIntyre as he comes upon me. “Yeaaah, mate,” I say, gasping for air. “Yeaah (suck) … Yeaah … (suck, suck). No dramas.” I get back on the bike and take off, warily, down the mountain with a self-diagnosed broken rib. We’ve still got a descent of more than 1000 metres before we reach the bottom and I have three days in the saddle ahead of me.
I must admit, coming from the land of sweeping plaintiffs had lulled me into a false sense of security. I assumed because it was an organised tour it wouldn’t be too difficult. My editor had said she wanted me to take a trip that took me out of my comfort zone. I had envisaged lovely days cycling on undulating alpine tracks – like a scene from The Sound of Music – but feared it might be too soft for what my editor wanted. I was wrong. I am in New Zealand careering down a mountain and my comfort zone is somewhere in another galaxy. Finally I make it down from Mount Dunstan – alive. One of my companions has a GPS that shows we descended from an altitude of more than 1700 metres to less than 200 metres in the space of a few hours. That afternoon, after more riding, we are driven to the thrillingly named village of Naseby to stay for the night. I drink beer, eat an enormous steak with an extra serving of chips and go to bed early, feeling as if I’ve been rucked by the All Blacks.
By the middle of next morning I want to give up. My legs are sore and we
are cycling up and down through pine forests in the hills behind Naseby. The
tracks are what mountain bikers call “technical tracks” – meaning there are
lots of things to run into, like trees, stumps and rocks. I have visions of my
own death from slamming head-first into a pine tree – death by radiata.
I think of my little boy. I want to cry but I can’t – it’s an unwritten rule on this
sort of thing. I just persist. Self-preservation, as they say, is the only rule.
In the afternoon we drive over to Alexandra in central Otago. The town
has spectacular, dry, rocky hills butted up behind it, with bike tracks cascading
in all directions. We are driven to the top. On the descent I fall off again,
hard, and graze my elbow, cut my knee and hurt my shoulder. I get up and
pedal slowly and carefully down. The gash under my knee is severe and
McIntyre thinks it might need stitches. “It’s borderline, though,” he says, after
further inspection. He swabs the dirt and blood away with a bit of Betadine,
and covers the wound with sticky plaster. “We could go to the hospital … or
we could go for a beer,” he says. Beer wins – it seems to take away all my pains.
Then, on the third day, something clicks. We are driven to an altitude of1700 metres to a place called Leaning Rock. The scenery is stunning, with snow-capped mountains in the distance and lakes and rivers below, and the
flats are a patchwork of brightly coloured fields of cherries, peaches and pinot noir grapes. On the descent I concentrate on my technique: bum back, elbows out, knees bent and looking forward, never down. I look through to where I want to go. I pick up speed and weave in and out down the mountain. I think of things other than death. I begin to look at the scenery and am not far behind
the others. “This is fun,” I say to myself, with a mad grin on my face. “This is great.” I shout a long “yippee” into the wind as I fly down the side of the mountain. Speed is my friend. I make it to the bottom without a prang. I feel as though I’ve conquered something deep within. I feel alive. Then there’s the respect of my new-found pals from Whakatane. I am admired not for my skill,
not for my speed and not for my agility, but for my bloody refusal to give in. And for not whingeing. I am like a tail-end batsman who’s been battered
and bruised with bouncers but who has refused to surrender his wicket. I am admired for my absorption of pain without complaint. “I have rarely seen someone grit their teeth and knuckle down as much as you did,” wrote one of
them later in an email. “Character-building stuff.” It was sheer stupidity, by any other reckoning. The last night in Queenstown is spent celebrating the achievements of the past few days. On the late-night walk home, around Lake Wakatipu, two of the boys get chatting with two pretty 20-year old women who are sitting beside the water’s edge. It is a balmy night and they convince the girls it’s a good idea for everyone to go swimming in their undies. It’s the perfect end to my Kiwi mancation. The next morning, a Friday, I limp onto the
plane for a flight bound for Sydney, having just jetted in on the Monday. It seems as though I’ve
been away for a fortnight. I feel like Glenn McGrath – a great fast bowler but a notoriously hopeless batsman – the day he scored 61 against the Kiwis at the Gabba. He boasted the next day that, with his Test average of seven, it was the equivalent of Matthew Hayden scoring 500. Those Kiwis may have beaten me down the mountain and ridden with verve and skill, but I made it out alive with
no broken bones – apart from the suspected cracked rib. I’m chalking it up as a victory.